Revisiting self-compassion as an antidote to suffering (with Kristin Neff and Christina Chwyl)

(A posting on entrepreneurial well-being, first published on January 4, 2018)

Entrepreneurs tend to deal with the greatest heights and depths of emotional experience—dizzying elation when a contract succeeds and equally deep depression when it does not.

Throughout the past Christmas holiday season,  I first read about meditation, mindfulness and suffering—concepts that affect our minds and the creative work that we as entrepreneurs do. As that year recently ended and a new one was ushered in, I noticed my mental temptation to ruminate—what the Concise Oxford English Dictionary refers to as the process of “thinking deeply about something.”

But in a context of meditation and mindfulness, “rumination” takes on a more troubling meaning, such as nursing obsessive worries and getting lost in depressive and anxious thoughts that greatly undermine one’s contentment or peace. Rumination can cause terrible emotional (and then creative) blocks, as we set forth to launch new services, or when we start new projects or conclude old ones. Can you think of times when you faced these kinds of emotional blocks and how much you suffered from them?

In her pioneering 2011 study, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, American psychologist Kristin Neff says that suffering occurs when reality does not match what we want. Given that such discordance is a common (almost daily) reality, we all suffer to some extent. It is part of being human. Neff cites her Chinese Buddhist mentor, Shinzen Young, however, who asserts that “suffering = pain x resistance.” We all suffer, but we can make our suffering more manageable if we do not resist the pain beneath it. Feel the pain, Neff writes; know what it’s about; and it will dissipate.

“The suffering doesn’t go away,” as local radio host Heather Morrison recently said, in the context of pandemic life. “But you feel better equipped to manage it.”

While contemplating this insight back in 2017, I happened also to read a meditation by the Buddhist monk, Bodhipaksa (over the Wildmind LLC meditation website). He stresses that when we suffer, one way that we resist pain is to ruminate on our circumstances, thinking, for instance, that “‘I’m worried about this, I don’t like that, No one cares about me or considers my feelings,’” and so on. Rumination allows our individual “thinking . . .  to amplify our suffering,” Bodhipaksa says.

Instead, if we can find compassion for ourselves (what Neff centres her work on), that self-compassion allows us to see ourselves as part of a greater community of others.

“‘I’ thoughts reinforce our sense of aloneness. We see ourselves as broken, as worse than others and therefore separate from [others],” Bodhipaksa says. By contrast, when we offer ourselves compassion (by a process of meditation or self-talk) we see that our “individual sufferings are . . . .  shared by others and [are] part of the difficulties we all have in being human.” “We thinking” connects us to others and enables us to view our individual sufferings as “part of the difficulties we all have in being human” he writes.

Neff’s theories of self-compassion argue that it can be cultivated and consists of “kindness meeting suffering,” that we offer to ourselves, and then can extend to others.

Fourteen months since the Covid-19 pandemic began, do you find yourself ruminating on (not just considering) your life and work?

If we cultivate self-compassion when we feel pain (instead of resisting the pain that only amplifies our suffering), our self-focused rumination will give way to calm, “decreasing our tendency to freak out, and increasing our happiness” (Bodhipaksa).


In the March 2021 issue of the  online magazine, “Psyche,” doctoral student in clinical psychology, Christina Chwyl, took up the topic of self-compassion, arguing that it “is not self-indulgence.”

Most of us are raised to share, cooperate and play fairly. And “yet many of us receive no guidance on how to be a friend to ourselves,” she writes. “We think that compassion for ourselves is counterproductive, self-indulgent, lazy or weak. As though we deal with life’s disappointments,” as Chwyl says, by “sitting on the couch and eat[ing] Ben and Jerry’s all day.”

Self-compassion, on the contrary, “gives us strategies to manage our emotions, such as seeking support from others” instead of blaming ourselves or distracting ourselves from our unaddressed resistance to suffering.

When we practice more self-compassion, we find it easier to improve ourselves by learning from our mistakes. We can admit our mistakes to ourselves without criticizing ourselves punitively for them.

Self-compassion is, Chwyl writes, “a healthy response to suffering.” When we practice it, we are better able to “take personal responsibility for transgressions and persist following obstacles” that otherwise would halt us in our tracks. Entrepreneurial and other failures become opportunities for learning and growth.

And “contrary to assumptions that self-compassion is selfish, self-compassion even helps us to be kinder toward others.” We can become “more resilient versions of ourselves.”

She writes that when our egos whisper to ourselves in self-talk to “achieve more, do better, and you will be worthy,” self-compassion is the reliable, old friend whom we deserve and who says, “I believe in you, I’m here for you, no matter what.”

Do these insights on self-compassion resonate with you? How do you offer yourself compassion, in these late, pandemic days?